By Barb Arland-Fye
Eleven years ago while working as a reporter for the secular press, I wrote a story about the historical agreement that Catholics and Lutherans reached with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The declaration states that, together, the two denominations confess:
“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while calling us to good works.” This agreement resolved a centuries-old, fundamental difference between Catholics and Lutherans.
I had always been intrigued by this dispute that led to the Reformation and Christians going their separate ways. But in 1999, when the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders signed the agreement, I had not read the pivotal 95 Theses of Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation. This past month, as part of my studies in the Master of Pastoral Theology program, I had the opportunity to read Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.
Growing up Catholic, I viewed this 16th century cleric as a dissenter who dismantled the Catholic Church by posting complaints against its doctrine on the doors of a church in Germany in 1517.
But, as I absorbed the central message of his 95 Theses — that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace and can’t be bought or earned — I wondered why it took nearly 500 years for Lutherans and Catholics to realize they’re on the same page concerning this belief.
The historical perspective helped. In Martin Luther’s day, some clergymen practically hawked indulgences as a way to make money for the Church; the faithful were led to believe they could buy salvation for themselves and even for their departed loved ones.
Frustrated with this chicanery and insisting that we receive forgiveness of sins and become righteous because of God’s grace alone, Luther posted his theses. In them he challenged the pope’s authority to remit sins and criticized what had become, in Luther’s mind, paid-for forgiveness.
“Papal indulgences should only be preached with caution, lest people gain a wrong understanding, and think that they are preferable to other good works: those of love,” Luther wrote in thesis No. 41. “Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences,” he wrote in thesis No. 43.
Luther’s falling out with the Catholic Church led to his excommunication, but reforms were made – including in the area of indulgences.
Today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church states that indulgences are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of penance:
“An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance and charity.” (CCC, 1478)
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses is fascinating reading and would be worth exploring as adult education on Church history in a parish setting. His message about the Church’s essential priorities remains relevant today.